Excerpts from Justin Peters, The Idealists, 2016, Scribner.
Introduction. Fragments 1/4/12/1:214-1/4/14/1:28
Several months after his arrest, Swartz and Norton had visited Washington, DC. While walking by the White House, Swartz got sad. “They don’t let felons work there,” he said.4 Swartz was twenty-six, small
Introduction. Fragments 1/4/93:1-1/4/94/1:357
But this dream has consistently been deferred, perhaps because it is and has always been wildly unrealistic. The informaticists Rob Kling and Roberta Lamb characterize computing technology as the “centerpiece of seductive dreams,” a license for digital soothsayers to emphasize computing’s utopian potential while ignoring the sociopolitical realities
Chapter 01. Fragments 1/4/8/1:207-1/4/8/1:482.
Chopping blocks and crucifixes are conclusive, but also messy, and they sometimes make martyrs of their victims. Martyrs inspire movements; movements are bad for business. The earliest copyright policies were, in a sense, slightly more humane methods of extinguishing dissent
Chapter 01. Fragments 1/4/91/3:130-1/4/93:0.
Based on the Statute of Anne” is an understatement; as the legal historian Oren Bracha recently noted, “The similarity is felt on every level, including structure, legal technicalities, and specific text.”38 Like the Statute of Anne, the American bill was framed as “an Act for the encouragement of learning,” a matter of public policy instead of as a natural right. Maps, charts, and books were protected under the act, with the term books liberally interpreted to encompass printed works ranging from from catalogs to calendars.39 Authors had to register their works formally with their local district court before copyright was conferred. Many authors did not bother to do so.
Chapter 01. Fragments 1/4/99/1:388-1/4/101:0.
But as Webster aged, he began to realize that, while information might be fatal to despotism, an informed, egalitarian society is not necessarily an enlightened one.
Chapter 02. Fragments 1/4/148/3:106-1/5:0.
The rhetorical logic of the international copyright debate, through sheer reiteration, led to the development and consecration of the notion of copyright as a property right, and literature as property. And the people who controlled that property resolved to protect it.
Chapter 03. Fragments 1/4/11:1-1/4/12/1:397.
The number of free public libraries in America grew prodigiously in the 1890s and 1900s, precipitated by grants and donations from rich men, such as the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who hoped to whitewash their fortunes by erecting “a brown-stone buildin’ in ivry town in the country with me name over it,” as the columnist Finley Peter Dunne wrote in the voice of his Mr. Dooley character
Chapter 03. Fragments 1/4/13:1-1/4/14/1:138.
The donors’ dappled motives notwithstanding, their charity had essentially benevolent results. In town after town across America, public
Chapter 03. Fragments 1/4/20/1:227-1/4/22/1:19.
“In creating and training such a cadre, corporate capitalists created a virtually new social class, one that Marx had not anticipated.”9 These administrators’ livelihoods were supported by proprietary media, yet they were rarely creators themselves. Their rise to prominence was inevitable. As Christopher P. Wilson put it, this was an era when literature “could be conceived as a product of labor rather than romantic inspiration.”10 The product of labor is property. Information wants to be expensive. But the rise of the
Chapter 03. Fragments 1/4/41/3:450-1/4/43:0.
copyright terms should be long and easily renewable; scofflaws should face civil or criminal penalties; the public benefit in copyright was identical to the author’s benefit; and those who felt differently were probably pirates.
Chapter 03. Fragments 1/4/97:1-1/4/98/10:1.
Vannevar rhymes with believer, and when it came to government funding of scientific research, Bush certainly was. He was also a lifelong believer in libraries, and the benefits to be derived from their automation. In 1945, he published an article in the Atlantic Monthly that proposed a rudimentary mechanized library called Memex, a linked-information retrieval system. Memex was a desk-size machine that was equal parts stenographer, filing cabinet, and reference librarian: “a device in which an individual stores his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.”49
Chapter 03. Fragments 1/4/98/10:279-1/4/98/10:526.
Imagine the thrill, for example, of plumbing the neural archives of the man who invented whistling, and being able to trace the development of that concept, step by step, all the way back to that magic moment when he realized that he might be able
Chapter 03. Fragments 1/4/100/1:265-1/4/100/3:131.
Bush maintained that computerized libraries would transform society, and that Project Intrex would “influence, perhaps revolutionize, the methods of every professional group—in law, medicine, the humanities. It will support every phase of our general culture. I believe very few scholars today realize what this could mean. I am sure the general public does not realize, for instance, that success in this program could mean as much to their well-being, their health, as has been produced by the power of antibiotics.”50 Even the most pragmatic men couldn’t help but sound idealistic when it came to libraries and their potential to change the world
Chapter 03. Fragments 1/4/116:1-1/4/117/3:44.
If neither the public nor creators benefitted from limited copyright terms, then who did benefit? The answer, as always, was pirates
Chapter 03. Fragments 1/4/117/3:152-1/4/117/5:357.
Worst of all, pirates use violence to help themselves to other people’s property. The term pirate groups copyright infringers in the same category as Blackbeard, Captains Kidd and Hook, and other notorious maritime villains. It’s hard to recover from that initial mental association, from the image of rogue bands of printers, tape dubbers, and photoduplicatrixes roaming the oceans of copyright, ruthlessly plundering innocents for their personal gain
Chapter 03. Fragments 1/4/120:1-1/4/121/1:215.
To resolve the dispute between composers and the infernal-talking-machine proprietors, the 1909 framers created a public-performance clause, wherein composers were compensated if their works were exhibited in public
Chapter 03. Fragments 1/4/124:1-1/4/125/1:495.
The photocopier, like the jukebox, inspired fear and loathing among members of the copyright committee. Though mechanized document-duplication devices had existed since the 1920s, the invention in 1959 of the one-piece photocopier, or Xerox machine, made photoduplication a veritable pleasure rather than a rage-inducing chore. Now, with minimal effort, anyone could duplicate any bit of printed content he or she desired. Much of the discussion during the meetings was devoted to strategies for
Chapter 03. Fragments 1/4/132/4:26-1/4/132/6:453.
distinction between a fact and an artifact.61 A fact is one of “nature’s creations,” an ownerless piece of knowledge or data that belongs to the public. The periodic table, for example, is a fact: the tabular relationship between the chemical elements belongs to no one person, but instead is common knowledge on which all are free to draw and build. An artifact is a proprietary derivative of a fact: a specific and unique expression of fact or fancy. A colorful, uniquely designed poster of
Chapter 03. Fragments 1/4/133:1-1/4/134/3:324.
Another useful concept when attempting to understand the various points of view on copyright and intellectual property issues is the difference between gift economies and market economies. In a gift economy, a person gains influence and stature by the skill with which he gives and receives gifts; the gift, which is freely given with no expectation of recompense or tangible reward, is the primary medium of exchange
Chapter 03. Fragments 1/4/136/1:318-1/4/138:0.
Nonacademic work, however, exists in a market economy, where cultural artifacts are bought and sold, and the creator benefits by reaping financial reward from the sale of his work. The creator is not giving gifts to the public: he is, rather, selling goods to the public, and he needs the money because, unlike his professorial counterparts, his salary is generally not underwritten by a large, benevolent institution.
Chapter 03. Fragments 1/4/146/1:595-1/4/148/3:263.
As for Project Intrex, it faced a dearth of let’s-do and, ultimately, never came together. “The project seemed to be a bottomless financial pit,” wrote the historian Colin Burke, perhaps the world’s foremost Intrex authority.63 Burke also noted that the “technology was not ready to provide the high-powered information engine their goals demanded. Those that put too much faith in rapid technological advances, like Intrex, had to spend too much time waiting for the technology to appear
Chapter 04. Fragments 1/4/6/4:193-1/4/8/1:26.
“People are shortsighted + shallow + world is suffering as a result,” he scribbled on a sheet of paper. “A. Don’t know if anything can be done about it. B. Find out.”2 Since leaving the Army in
Chapter 04. Fragments 1/4/6/4:197-1/4/7:0.
People are shortsighted + shallow + world is suffering as a result,” he scribbled on a sheet of paper. “A. Don’t know if anything can be done about it. B. Find out.”2
Chapter 04. Fragments 1/4/15:1-1/4/16/5:0.
Hart traveled to his own beat as a matter of principle. A basic problem with society, in Hart’s estimation, was that too many of its citizens were stuck in their own silos, accepting received wisdom as dogma, unwilling or unable to think for themselves. Hart hadn’t had much success convincing others to open their minds, however, and he wondered if his window of opportunity was closing. “At the end of the 60’s the Age of Apathy began and I started losing interest in my audiences because ther [sic] were losing interest in everything,” he wrote, explaining why he had abandoned his musical ambitions.17
Chapter 04. Fragments 1/4/35/2:478-1/4/36:0.
To him, the progression seemed obvious. You couldn’t change the world without changing minds, and you couldn’t transform people’s thought processes without giving them something new to think about. The powerful wanted to keep the masses ignorant and pliable by making information expensive and scarce. Hart concluded that digital networks could be used to set that data free.
Chapter 04. Fragments 1/4/42:1-1/4/43/5:155.
For Michael Hart, the digitization of public-domain literature was a vocation in its original sense: a spiritual calling to a movement. But movements need names, and Hart delayed for a long while—for seventeen years following his transcription of the Declaration of Independence, to be exact—before choosing one. Lying on a mattress on the floor of his house in Urbana, Illinois, in 1988,36 Hart pondered various names for his endeavor—The Electronic Book Factory, The Never Ending Library, Library Galactica37—before finally adopting one that elegantly captured both his own revolutionary ambition and his endeavor’s transformative potential: Project Gutenberg
Chapter 04. Fragments 1/4/47:1-1/4/48/3:225.
If libraries nurtured dreamers like Michael Hart, then digital computers and networks activated them. “When I first learned I had access to the Internet back in 1971 it was as if one of those lights you see in the comics went off with a flash right over my head,” Hart recalled.39 Generations of disaffected nerds have felt the same way. The real world favors the handsome and coordinated, rewards conformism and compliance, and reinforces systemic inequities by design. The Internet offers an alternative
Chapter 04. Fragments 1/4/52/1:362-1/4/52/5:216.
“The idea on which Lick’s worldview pivoted,” according to Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon in Where Wizards Stay Up Late, “was that technological progress would save humanity.”41 Machines’ storage, retrieval, and processing capabilities would help their human operators to be more productive by minimizing error and mundane repetition. Humans would, in turn, improve and refine the machines.
Chapter 04. Fragments 1/4/56/3:81-1/4/58/3:194.
Thus these early users, prohibited from exploiting the network for profit, used it instead to foster the free exchange of information. This munificent ideology was encoded into what the author Steven Levy described in his insightful book Hackers as the “hacker ethic.” Hackers—a term for early computer programmers—wrote computer code and believed that other hackers should share their code and computing resources with their peers
Chapter 04. Fragments 1/4/73:1-1/4/76:0.
Though Hart and Stallman worked in different fields, they shared similar tools, goals, and methods. They also shared similar blind spots. Free software and free literature by themselves will not necessarily improve society, and proprietary books and computer programs will not necessarily destroy it. The rise of a commercial trade around cultural artifacts can also end up expanding the audience for those artifacts, exposing them to people who might never have known they existed.
Chapter 04. Fragments 1/4/83/1:165-1/4/83/1:597.
The gargantuan mainframes of the 1960s had given way to smaller computers suitable to the home office, produced and marketed by entrepreneurs who realized the potential for consumer revenue. Microsoft’s Bill Gates—whose MS-DOS and Windows operating systems eventually dominated the PC market—and Apple’s Steve Jobs, for instance, were unmoved by the hackers’ utopian rhetoric. They wanted to make money, not save the world
Chapter 04. Fragments 1/4/92/2:300-1/4/92/6:0.
A source of much debate over recent years has been whether to write software in-house or buy it from commercial suppliers. Now, a third alternative is becoming significant in what some see as a revolution in software supply,” he wrote, referring to the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project. Berners-Lee wondered whether Stallman’s ideas might not be applied to the work he was doing for CERN. “Just as we publish physics for free, should we not in certain cases ‘publish’ our software?” he asked.61
Chapter 04. Fragments 1/4/93:1-1/4/94/1:642.
Though the World Wide Web is often used as a synonym for the Internet, they are not the same thing. The “information superhighway” metaphor may be hoary, but it still has its uses. A highway is just a road, designed to carry all sorts of vehicles without discrimination. Automobiles, trucks, motorcycles, trailers—they all use the highway, and the highway doesn’t favor one over another. The road is simply infrastructure. You can think of the Internet as a highway that is used by different programs. Your e-mail service is one of them. Instant-messaging applications are another. The World Wide Web is just another of these programs
Chapter 04. Fragments 1/4/95:1-1/4/98:0.
The Web became popular because of its linking capacity. In his proposal for Memex, Vannevar Bush advanced the idea that the associative trails between two disparate thoughts or facts could be captured and stored. The Web put a version of this idea into practice by allowing its users to link directly to other documents or websites: a feature called hypertext. The World Wide Web was modeled after an actual web, composed of threads—hypertext links—that spun out in all directions, connecting various far-flung nodes, or websites.
Chapter 04. Fragments 1/4/150:1-1/4/153/1:9.
Despite the existence of initiatives such as Project Gutenberg, despite the emergence of the Internet as a new medium for information retrieval and distribution, the same official attitudes about intellectual property prevailed. The public domain was regarded as a penalty rather than as an opportunity. Parochial concerns were conflated with the public interest. The rise of the Internet might portend an informational revolution, but from the standpoint of the people in power, Hart warned, revolution was a bad thing. “Every
Chapter 05. Fragments 1/4/10/7:63-1/4/10/7:239.
I imagined that what I was doing was promoting democracy, respect for other people, mutual understanding, literacy, appreciation for literature . . . and a lot of nice warm
Chapter 05. Fragments 1/4/16/3:1-1/4/18:0.
The law was called the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), in honor of the recently deceased congressman and songwriter. Bono’s widow, Representative Mary Bono, claimed that her husband had “wanted the term of copyright protection to last forever,” and his former colleagues in Congress basically decided to grant his wish.9 The CTEA extended the copyright term on any given work created before 1978 to ninety-five years after its first publication. Works published after 1977 would remain under copyright until seventy years after the author’s death.
Chapter 05. Fragments 1/4/31:1-1/4/32/3:0.
Lawrence “Larry” Lessig was a law professor at Harvard University, where he was affiliated with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Though he had come to lead a movement looking to liberalize America’s copyright laws, he didn’t immediately seem like a particularly radical fellow. Lessig “grew up a right-wing lunatic Republican” and had clerked for the conservative jurists Richard Posner and Antonin Scalia.20
Chapter 05. Fragments 1/4/34/3:127-1/4/34/5:329.
Lessig, like Eldred, believed that copyright in America had strayed from its original purpose, and that lawmakers failed to recognize the realities of digital culture. “To digitize a book is to copy it,” he would later write. “To do that requires permission of the copyright owner. The same holds for music, film, and every
Chapter 05. Fragments 1/4/45:1-1/4/47/2:90.
AT the time, Aaron Swartz was almost certainly America’s youngest public-domain enthusiast
Chapter 05. Fragments 1/4/48:1-1/4/49/1:39.
Aaron Swartz had always been an outlier
Chapter 05. Fragments 1/4/50:1-1/4/51/1:253.
Swartz was born on November 8, 1986, and grew up with two younger brothers in what was surely the most computer-friendly household in Highland Park. His father, Robert, worked in the computer industry, and the Swartz home was filled with useful machines
Chapter 05. Fragments 1/4/55/5:4-1/4/57:0.
That’s not what the Internet was made for. It was based on open standards and freedom,” Swartz explained to the reporter. Swartz gravitated to others who felt the same way.
Chapter 05. Fragments 1/4/56:1-1/4/57/3:46.
Around the same time he founded The Info Network, he also began contributing to online message boards and mailing lists for people who wanted to make the Internet more functional, which in turn, they hoped, would make the world a better place. “We were part of an inchoate, ad-hoc community of collaborators who helped each other learn how to code. No, not how to write code—how to write code for the purpose of changing the world,” Swartz’s friend Zooko Wilcox-O’Hearn
Chapter 05. Fragments 1/4/59/3:87-1/4/63:0.
participant’s status was measured not by age or title, but by the quality of his contributions to the group. Aaron Swartz didn’t advertise his youth, and by the time that most of Swartz’s correspondents discovered his juvenescence, they were already impressed enough by his intelligence that it didn’t make much of a difference.“On the topic of not necessarily having a good feel for the age of net-based collaborators, I was blown away to learn that Aaron Swartz is in 8th grade :-!!,” a developer named Gabe Beged-Dov wrote to an online mailing list on July 3, 2000.38
Chapter 05. Fragments 1/4/87/1:165-1/4/89/3:0.
was that it was absolute. Once copyright was conferred, the rightsholder reserved all the rights to his creation. Creative Commons provided alternatives for people who perhaps wanted to reserve some rights to their creations, but were willing to cede others to the public. The solution was a series of “licenses” that allowed creators to grant preemptive permission to people who wished to use and distribute their work. A photographer could publish one of her photographs under a Creative Commons “attribution” license, for example, which meant that anyone was free to copy, distribute, and display the photograph as long as they credited the photographer for her work.
Chapter 05. Fragments 1/4/89/3:364-1/4/91:0.
on how statutory copyright often failed to meet the needs of the networked society. Copyright law needed to catch up with the times, Creative Commons implied—and if the laws lagged behind, then people would simply find a way to work around them.
Chapter 05. Fragments 1/4/94:1-1/4/96:0.
Swartz was forthright about the ethicality of the Creative Commons project, too. He insisted that withholding access to information wasn’t just bad policy: it was also morally wrong. “Without saying that what everybody else is doing is bad, we just thought these licenses might be good to help people share their stuff more,” Rein remarked years later. “Aaron was ready to say, ‘This system is bad, we need to change this.’ ”51
Chapter 05. Fragments 1/4/114/3:81-1/4/116:0.
industries operate on a mildly coercive “push marketing” model in which companies use advertising and promotions to create consumer demand for the products they want to sell, and the formats in which they want to sell them. Online file sharing repudiates “push marketing” by allowing consumers to unilaterally decide what they want to consume and how they want to do so. As file sharing grew ever more popular in the early 2000s, bringing with it potential opportunities for new, collaborative models of marketing and production, the culture industries instead focused almost wholly on ways to regain their lost control.
Chapter 05. Fragments 1/4/124/3:407-1/4/124/3:643.
1999, he sold his company, Alexa Internet—an homage to his beloved Library of Alexandria—to Amazon for $250 million in stock, and then turned his attentions to building and maintaining the Internet Archive, which he founded in 1996
Chapter 06. Fragments 1/4/6/2:329-1/4/6/2:566.
“While making it work and finding things to do have been difficult, I’ve been forced to sort out my priorities and figure out how I work best. I doubt this would have happened in school, where you are told what’s important and when
Chapter 06. Fragments 1/4/52:1-1/4/55:0.
Swartz’s privileged youth showed itself in moments like these. “My grandfather was a capitalist. My father was a capitalist. I went to elementary school and junior high in the sixth-richest city in America. I went to high school in the third-richest,” he wrote in April 2005.25 His parents had had the wherewithal to underwrite his youthful exceptionalism; he had been free to opt out of systems that did not regard him as special. It is easy to sleep on the street when you know you are doing so by choice; it is easy to shirk tedious tasks when your well-being has never hinged on their completion.
Chapter 06. Fragments 1/4/55/1:214-1/4/57:0.
Not a Bug needed him to be one thing: a programming animal. Swartz refused to accept those constraints. “I don’t want to be a programmer,” Swartz wrote on his blog in May 2006.26 “When I look at programming books, I am more tempted to mock them than to read them. When I go to programmer conferences, I’d rather skip out and talk politics than programming. And writing code, although it can be enjoyable, is hardly something I want to spend my life doing.”
Chapter 06. Fragments 1/4/60:1-1/4/61/4:278.
The novelist Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Third Law states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It is also true that any sufficiently advanced technology encourages magical thinking. New technologies are indistinguishable from magic wands, imbued with great and implausible powers that can transcend societal barriers and the laws of thermodynamics. Silicon Valley is rife with examples of aspiring messiahs touting the world-historical potential of their products
Chapter 06. Fragments 1/4/67/1:407-1/4/69:0.
In that year, the RIAA filed suit against 261 Internet users nationwide whose online history indicated that they had illegally shared music files over the Internet; the trade organization sought exorbitant financial damages in reparation. (A brief personal aside: One of the people who was sued was my mother, whose name was on the Internet account that my teenage sister used to illicitly share some tracks by Destiny’s Child and O-Town. My mother has never illicitly shared anything in her life. My mother was named Woman of the Year by her church.)
Chapter 06. Fragments 1/4/97/3:263-1/4/99:0.
You can say a site is cool, stupid, popular, a flop, innovative, or clichéd,” Swartz wrote on his blog. “But the one thing you can’t say, the one thing that everybody skips over, is that these sites aren’t anything serious.”39 Silicon Valley seemed, to Swartz, to operate on an inverted moral calculus that granted start-ups rewards disproportionate to the value they added to the world. Swartz was leery of acculturating to that sort of environment.
Chapter 06. Fragments 1/4/101/3:499-1/4/103:0.
The central lesson of the book, according to Swartz: “Corporate managers simply aren’t allowed to be moral, or even reasonable. And those who try are simply weeded out.”
Chapter 06. Fragments 1/4/130:1-1/4/134:0.
SWARTZ’S departure from Reddit roughly coincided with the beginning of his first serious romantic relationship. He moved in with the writer and artist Quinn Norton, whom he’d met at the Emerging Technologies conference in 2002, when he was fifteen and Norton was in a long-term polyamorous relationship with two men. Now Swartz was an adult and Norton was single. She was also thirteen years older than him, but Swartz had never had a problem with wide age disparities. They began as roommates. They soon became more.
Chapter 06. Fragments 1/4/134/3:146-1/4/134/7:104.
The “animals” of his generation were being incentivized to use their talents on websites that were “the mental equivalent of snack food,” he wrote in March 2007.54 Though computer technology could theoretically be employed to solve many of the world’s problems, such an outcome “requires people to sit down and build tools that solve them. Which, as long as programmers are all competing to create the world’s most popular timewaster, it doesn’t seem like anyone is going to do.
Chapter 06. Fragments 1/4/134/7:234-1/4/136:0.
“If you work for a startup you can fool yourself into believing that the reward will be eternal wealth, but I work for a nonprofit, and the reward is: I did a thing, and I doubt I’ll ever do anything like it again.”55 Swartz started to pursue projects that could deliver these sorts of intangible rewards.
Chapter 06. Fragments 1/4/138/11:1-1/4/140:0.
“Brewster is a collector,” one of Kahle’s collaborators told Elisabeth A. Jones during an interview for her dissertation, “Constructing the Universal Library.” “Have you ever met any collectors? Whether they collect maps or cars, they just . . . are acquisitive of STUFF. And that’s what he is. And collectors don’t stop until they’ve got all the stuff.”59
Chapter 06. Fragments 1/4/149/1:244-1/4/151:0.
Curiosity and courtesy were behaviors he had worked hard to learn to imitate so that others didn’t find him too strange,” Swartz wrote, “but he did his best to make sure other people took no more than a couple hours of his time.”65
Chapter 06. Fragments 1/4/154:1-1/4/157/1:235.
How could it be? Moral Mazes had taught Swartz that companies cared first and foremost about their own survival and self-perpetuation, and evaluated their business strategies based on those criteria. If it was more profitable to be good than evil, then a company would be good. If it was more profitable to be evil than good, then a company would be evil. As a teenager in Chicago, Swartz maintained a blog about Google’s products and internal affairs, which proved so popular that he had been invited to Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters for a tour and a visit. By the time he turned
Chapter 06. Fragments 1/4/161/7:114-1/4/162:0.
Surely there have been times when you’ve been sad,” he wrote. “Perhaps a loved one has abandoned you or a plan has gone horribly awry. Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak—the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either.” It’s hard to say which condition sounds worse.
Chapter 06. Fragments 1/4/168:1-1/4/171:0.
The power is that these people are collaborating. But they are collaborating because they have come together to form a community. And a community works because it has shared values. But here’s the thing: these shared values are profoundly anti-business. [Laughs from the audience.] I mean, look at Wikipedia. This is a group who wakes up every day and tries to put the encyclopedia publishers out of business by providing a collection of world knowledge they can give away to everyone for free.
Chapter 07. Fragments 1/4/5:1-1/4/6/2:142.
As long as man has lived in society, he has yearned to escape that society and run off to live in a cave. This dream is usually abandoned once
Chapter 07. Fragments 1/4/10/3:1-1/4/13:0.
But if you wanted to save the world, you had to first be willing to forsake it. Giustiniani moved in. Others soon followed. For centuries, the monks lived there in the transcendent quiet. Then modernity came, and with it came disrepair. As went the monastery, so went the friars; vocations, like buildings, can grow worn and weathered.5 The few remaining monks dispersed between the First and Second World Wars, and today the entire property is deconsecrated and privately held, used as a retreat and conference space by secular groups that also seek to escape society, if only for days at a time.6
Chapter 07. Fragments 1/4/13:1-1/4/17:0.
Though it has evolved from its original purpose, the hermitage still stands as a monument to radical idealism, a physical reminder that we have a choice, that we are not bound inextricably to social convention. It takes courage to opt out of the world, its comforts and vices, in pursuit of less tangible rewards, but it can be done. Uncomfortable as caves may be, we can eventually learn to live in them. If society makes no sense, we can always stop listening. If the world disappoints us, we can leave it behind.
Chapter 07. Fragments 1/4/19/1:357-1/4/21/1:433.
Want to actually make a difference? You’ll have to buck the system instead of joining it.”8 “The system,” in all its incarnations, that vague authoritarian stronghold of imprecise menace and organizational inefficiency, had long been Swartz’s primary antagonist. Organized schooling, traditional employment—all of these existed in opposition to Swartz’s brand of restless, polymathic nonconformism. Systems exist to perpetuate themselves, so they naturally discourage deviance and promote pliant, normative behavior
Chapter 07. Fragments 1/4/26:1-1/4/27/1:194.
Years after he first read Chomsky’s book, Swartz thought he understood power pretty well. Knowledge is power. Therefore, free, unimpeded access to information is an inherently political issue,
Chapter 07. Fragments 1/4/28:1-1/4/29/1:250.
In June 2007, Lawrence Lessig also decided to buck the system. On his personal blog, Lessig announced that he was going to stop working on copyright issues and instead shift his focus to political corruption. Lamenting that “our government can’t
Chapter 07. Fragments 1/4/29/3:48-1/4/30:0.
Congress passed a copyright term extension that enriched the entertainment industry at the expense of the public domain—a decision, Lessig implied, that stemmed from legislators prioritizing the interests of campaign funders over those of the general public. Policymaking in the United States was too often an exercise in willful ignorance. “I am someone who believes that a free society—free of the ‘corruption’ that defines our current society—is necessary for free culture, and much more,” Lessig concluded. “For that reason, I turn my energy elsewhere for now.”11
Chapter 07. Fragments 1/4/31/1:57-1/4/31/9:1.
Lessig inquired whether there was any sort of community resource for “scrapers”—people who used the Internet to download large data sets.12 Swartz decided to create one and launched a website called theinfo.org. “This is a site for large data sets and the people who love them,” Swartz wrote by way of introduction.13 Swartz loved them more than most. Concurrent with his work for Open Library, Swartz had crawled the Google Books archive and downloaded approximately 530,000 public-domain texts.14
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“the system” relies on institutional opacity to conceal its aims and to consolidate its grasp on power, one way to buck the system, Swartz seems to have believed, is to reveal the information that it actively keeps hidden.
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The job remained the same, except now Swartz was working on a bigger scale. Initiate a discussion about “real information” and the Internet, be it on a blog, mailing list, message board, chat client, social networking site, or tin-can telephone, and you could count on Aaron Swartz eventually joining the conversation. He traveled the world evangelizing on these topics, like a man touched with ideological tinnitus, unable to escape the sound of social dysfunction and desperate to make others hear the ringing in his ears. In July 2008,
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Academic authors do not usually write for profit; rather, their work aims to augment the common store of knowledge. What’s more, since the government often funds their research, it’s not a stretch to claim that the fruits of that research should belong to the public. So why should this material be subject to the same access restrictions as a mystery bestseller or a Hollywood film? As with many other inexplicable policies, the blame belongs to a vestigial middleman.
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Ginsparg’s growing preprint archive augured great changes in the academic-publishing world. “Starting 10 years ago, we no longer needed publishers to turn our drafts into something that had a polished superficial appearance,” Ginsparg wrote in 1994. “Starting more recently, we no longer need them for their distribution network—we have something much better.”20
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To Swartz, these policies were inefficient, and, worse, irrational—an affront to his utilitarian moral code. While short-term financial logic suggested that the publishers should cling tightly to their copyrights, the world would surely be better served if they relaxed their grip. The publishers’ business model seemed fundamentally immoral in the Internet age and, left unchallenged, would ultimately prove fatal to the open, collaborative Web
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Though the SEC database was comprised of public data, the agency persisted in treating it as proprietary information. “The SEC database is not a product, but the way that investors are informed of the status of public corporations so they may direct their investment dollars to the proper place,” Malamud wrote in 1997. “Large government databases are not products; they are the very fuel that makes an information economy function properly.”40
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Embarrassed though he may have been, Swartz had no intention of changing his ways. This attitude complicated his collaboration with Carl Malamud. Throughout his career as a data liberation activist, Malamud had always taken care to work strictly within the bounds of the law, both as a means of self-preservation and as a way of underscoring a broader point: public data, by law, belonged to the public, and there was nothing illegal about making it public.
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His actions shouldn’t have surprised anyone. If the city of Cambridge had compiled a yearbook of all its residents, Aaron Swartz would surely have been named Most Likely to Try to Download the Entire JSTOR Corpus. Swartz was an ideologue who had spent the
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philosophical norms that governed inquiry and activity in all respectable laboratories, and without which no credible research could proceed. These four norms are universalism, communism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism.57 Although the word has many political associations, Merton’s term communism simply meant that the products of scientific research belong to the community, and that scientists are rewarded for their discoveries not by money, but by “recognition and esteem.” Isaac Newton was the first to describe his second law of motion, for instance, but that fact does not entitle his descendants to royalties whenever an object comes to rest and stays at rest.
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Scientific discoveries “constitute a common heritage in which the equity of the individual producer is severely limited,” wrote Merton. “Property rights in science are whittled down to a bare minimum by the rationale of the scientific ethic.”58 Merton further noted the absolute incompatibility of the communal scientific ethos with “the definition of technology as ‘private property’ in a capitalistic economy.”59 As capitalism and academic science continued to coalesce in the twentieth century, this communal ethos was put at risk. Today, MIT’s own website
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The federal support that Vannevar Bush believed would free academic scientists from the need to collaborate with industry has ended up pushing them more firmly into industry’s embrace. Initially, the federal government retained title to all of the scientific research that it funded
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This setup changed in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Bayh-Dole Act, which effectively privatized the fruits of publicly funded research. Bayh-Dole was meant to address
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Free access to scientific pursuits is a functional imperative” for scientists, wrote Robert K. Merton in 1942.65 The hacker ethic was, in a sense, a critique of applied, corporate science in the university, of the move from Mertonian universalism and communism toward proprietary research.
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Now, as programmers, we have sort of special abilities. We almost have a magic power,” Swartz said. “But with great power comes great responsibility, and we need to think about the good that we can do with this magical ability. We need to think about, from a utilitarian perspective, what’s the greatest good we can achieve in the world at small cost to ourselves?”70
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Looks like he is a big hacker, i googled him,” was one MIT police officer’s response upon Swartz’s arrest.9 Not Reddit cofounder; not Open Library architect; not computer prodigy or applied sociologist or Harvard affiliate or any of the other lines on his résumé. A big hacker. And a suspicious person might well read some of Swartz’s overheated free culture rhetoric
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The manifesto was a public document, then over two years old. “We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world,” Swartz had written. “We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks.” To the prosecutors, the fact that Swartz had done the former implied that he had also been planning to do the latter. This thesis would define their case. Almost immediately
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Decentralized by design, the Web was a tool that rapidly animated and disseminated ideas good, bad, and between. That most people seemed only to use it for banter and ephemera was no demerit; the medium’s discursiveness was a sign of its strength. The Web had no presiding officer to direct debate and impose decorum. The Web belonged to its users.
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“I, personally, do not think the world at large really, sincerely wants to provide literacy and education from anyone to The Third World, in spite of all lip service to the contrary,” a morose Michael Hart wrote to friends in July 2011.57 He died of a heart attack two months later, at sixty-four, with the electronic renaissance he had predicted decades earlier as near and as distant as ever.
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article titled “Long Live the Web,” Berners-Lee warned that while the Web had “evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles,” malign forces were actively working to erode those principles. “Large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web. Wireless Internet providers are being tempted to slow traffic to sites with which they have not made deals. Governments—totalitarian and democratic alike—are monitoring people’s online habits, endangering important human rights. Why should you care? Because the Web is yours.”58
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It was so incredibly inspiring,” Swartz told Wikler. “People often think, like, ‘Oh, I sign these petitions,’ you know, ‘I don’t really know what effect they’re having, does anyone listen to them?’ This makes it really clear. People are listening, and when we all speak up, we can totally change the debate. We shifted the entire landscape of this issue.”74
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As Holmes Wilson put it later, “Demand Progress was the first organization to build campaigns that connected those bills to entire new audiences of people who cared about tech policy just because of how much they lived on the Internet, and not because of any previous kind of commitment to the ideals of liberty online.”75
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Swartz warned the crowd of democracy activists that it was too early to celebrate, that similar legislation would recrudesce in the future: Sure, it will have yet another name, and maybe a different excuse, and probably do its damage in a different way. But make no mistake: The enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared. The fire in those politicians’ eyes hasn’t been put out. There are a lot of people, a lot of powerful people, who want to clamp down on the Internet. And to be honest, there aren’t a whole lot who have a vested interest in protecting it from all of that.78
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But left unmentioned in Swartz’s post was how The Trial ends.
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The informal coalition that assembled to successfully protest SOPA and PIPA roughly conformed to Swartz’s vision of a polymathic activist committee. Their success, in a sense, served as a proof of concept. In the spring and summer of 2012, as the federal case against him continued, Swartz spent his time refining that concept further and mulling the best way to build an organization that did not disempower its members.
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Raw Nerve was his most ambitious attempt yet at articulating and systematizing this type of advice. Full of pithy life lessons drawn from sociological research papers, the Raw Nerve posts evoke the writings of Malcolm Gladwell; Swartz even based one post on the same study that Gladwell used as the basis for his 2008 book Outliers. But Raw Nerve also transcended pop-science superficiality, and for one basic reason: Swartz clearly intended its motivational homilies, first and foremost, for his own
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The US Attorney’s Office in Boston held no press conference to explain its decision to bring these new charges, but on his website the day after the superseding indictment was announced, Swartz, quoting the philosopher Bertrand Russell, offered an oblique theory on the prosecutors’ motives: “Since power over human beings is shown in making them do what they would rather not do, the man who is actuated by love of power is more apt to inflict pain than to permit pleasure.”20
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Woodhull later noted that Swartz was fascinated by “this whole idea that there are all these organizations that think they are doing good, but actually, in objective terms, either aren’t or could be doing a lot better.” Too many nonprofits took the Batman and Harvey Dent routes, so to speak: they deployed methods that were emotionally satisfying but empirically ineffective. What the nonprofits needed to do was emulate the Joker
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I met Aaron twice and, each time, I was struck by the searing lucidity of his mind, by his uncanny ability to see further than most of us,” wrote Jean-Claude Guédon, a Canadian academic who had attended the EIFL conference in Cupramontana with Swartz in 2008.40 Brad
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Elliot Peters told the Boston Globe that the day after Swartz killed himself, Stephen Heymann had called and left a message expressing his sympathy. “I can’t call him back,” Peters told the Globe’s Kevin Cullen. “Either I’ll say something I shouldn’t say, or I’m going to act like I accept his condolences, which I don’t. So the only thing I can do is not call him back.”46
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And so they got a complete vacuum tube oscillator kit for making long-distance phone calls,” Tufte said. “But I was grateful for A. J. Dodge and, I must say, even AT and T, that they decided not to wreck my life.”47 AT&T decided not to do it. To pursue a case is always a decision, not an ineluctable gravitational reaction. The government could have given Swartz a break. MIT could have made a statement on his behalf. Swartz could have gone on to greater successes in the future. “He could have done so much more,” Robert Swartz said in his eulogy, his voice heavy with regret. “But now he is dead.”
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Swartz’s downfall is not so much a tale of personal vendettas and conspiracies as it is a story of flawed organizations. Imperfect institutions cannot help but generate imperfect outcomes. Mistakes compound because systems are designed to produce them.
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theme and asserted that, often, what looked like human error was really systemic failure. The story concerned the Toyota lean-production method that Swartz so admired. In 1982, General Motors closed a plant in Fremont, California, that had been notorious for underproduction and labor grievances. One year later, Toyota came to town, reopened the factory, and rehired the same workers—and, Swartz writes, “so began the most fascinating experiment in
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Last night I had a dream of the way I want to live. I’m not sure it would appeal to other people, but I would certainly like it.” He had found himself in a “modernly-designed loft” surrounded by his friends from the Internet, all the hackers and programmers and network enthusiasts who had welcomed a precocious teenager into their ranks: “We were working together on a project that we thought would change the world. We were committed to it, and worked well as a team: we helped each other out with what needed to be done, and kept each other’s enthusiasm up.” Swartz
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The idealistic and collaborative organizational dynamic that he described was more likely to exist in a digital medium than in the real world. Agglomerative collaboration, in which individual talents are utilized in pursuit of a common goal, animates digital utopianism. It is the soul of the hacker ethic, the motivating ethos of the free software movement. As Swartz grew up, the Internet delivered both people and projects to him. From the Semantic Web message-board
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Swartz never stopped chasing his unusual dream, never became inured to its failure to materialize, and never lost faith in the ultimate plausibility of his vision. By the end of his life, he had realized that it would be up to him to make that dream come true. I MUST INVENT MY OWN SYSTEM OR BE ENSLAVED BY OTHER MEN’S, Michael Hart had posted on his wall in Urbana. Swartz spent his life trying to invent his own systems, ones that were modeled on and powered by the Internet.
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American intellectual-property statutes are rooted historically in their framers’ disdain for the demos, and a dictatorial notion of culture. These laws, which are today weighted wholly in favor of producers, support and sustain the “push marketing” model, in which art and scholarship are generated by the creative elite and dispensed to a grateful public
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The copyright term extensions that were granted by Congress in 1998 will begin to expire in 2018. Soon after that, if history is any guide, the general copyright statute will be